Evolution of the European Union

European Union: A history and profile

The European Union today is one of the most powerful economic entities in the world. Its common currency, the euro, rivals the faltering but once dominant U.S. dollar as the most desirable payment option for international business. Nations fight to become part of the EU's framework, vying to demonstrate a commitment to free trade, economic liberalization, and human rights standards, as did Turkey in 2005, during the European Parliament's debate about its admission to the union (Rice-Oxley 2005). But not so long ago, the genesis of the EU itself into its modern incarnation seemed tenuous, as various members debated the value of a union with no restrictions between nations regarding travel and labor exchanges, no prohibitive tariffs, and a homogenous standard for goods, emissions of fossil fuels, and other economic areas once wholly regulated by national governments. Although certain aspects of the EU's existence and expansion still remain controversial, the EU today stands as a miracle of modern history. The war-ravaged nations of postwar Europe, old enemies as well as allies, merged together to engage in discourse in a common parliament and council and share the same currency and economic standards and interests.

The concept of an economically united Europe and a commonly shared currency is actually quite long-standing, dating back to the Second World War. It was hoped that economic unity would guard against the dangers of future conflicts. "The historical roots of the European Union lie in the Second World War. The idea was born because Europeans were determined to prevent such killing and destruction ever happening again. In the early years, the cooperation was between six countries and mainly about trade and the economy. Now the EU embraces 27 countries and 490 million people" into its fold ("United in diversity," 2008, EUROPA). As early as 1950, the European Coal and Steel Community united Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. In 1957, the Treaty of Rome created the European Economic Community (EEC), or 'Common Market.' In the 1960s, the Common Market countries agreed to end custom duties between one another and to establish common standards and controls over food production ("The history of the European Union," 2008, EUROPA). The current structure of the EU formally came into being after a historic agreement in 1987, called the Single European Act, the treaty which provided the basis for today's Single Market. The Maastricht Treaty of European Union was signed in 1993 and the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1999, finalizing the process ("The history of the European Union," 2008, EUROPA).

Despite this history of early cooperation, even today, regulations over regional policies remain controversial. For example, in 2005, the London-based Times groused that French farmers were holding Europe hostage, given that "three times as many French farmers receive large subsidies from the EU than those of any other country. In total, France receives almost twice as much direct subsidies for its farmers as any other member state, and they are mostly channeled to large farmers rather than traditional small-scale land holders....[but] Despite the huge discrepancies France steadfastly refuses to countenance any reduction in farm subsidies" from the EU (Browne & Smith 2005).

Controversy always rages over specific controls and subsidies, but the EU's membership continues to expand. Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom joined the European Union 1973. Ireland's membership within the union proved particularly beneficial, as the EU began the policy of investing money and building the infrastructure in impoverished areas to stimulate the growth of jobs. More and more nations began to benefit from this policy as poorer nations became part of the EU fold. 1981, Greece became the 10th member of the EU and Spain and Portugal followed five years later. In the 1995, some of the more hesitant nations joined, including Austria, Finland and Sweden ("The history of the European Union," 2008, EUROPA). The feelings of the northernmost European nations is perhaps best encompassed in the tone of this statement: "With considerable reluctance, and under repeated threat of severe economic punishment, a slight majority of Swedish voters decided with a national referendum on 13 November 1994 to join their country to the European Union (EU). In so doing, they agreed to surrender an as yet undetermined portion of national sovereignty in exchange for an equally vague assortment of great expectations" (Burke 2001).

Early on, the European Parliament strove to overcome objections about a loss of national autonomy by introducing important injection of democracy into its proceedings. Today, its governing body operates as a "confederalist" system, rather than a united entity with ultimate authority (McCormick 1999: 11). After 1979 all citizens could elect their members directly. Today, the European Parliament and the European Council pass joint acts. The parliament governs the "free movement of workers, creation of the internal market, research and technological development, the environment, consumer protection, education, culture and health" such as the recent "television without borders" initiative regarding sporting events (De Rossa, 2005). The Council and Parliament also jointly share the power of the purse, as the EU is financed by member states through customs duties, agricultural levies from non-EU countries, 1% of the VAT on goods and services throughout the Union, and a "fourth resource" based upon the prosperity of each member state (De Rossa 2005). "Parliament has the last word on spending on the regions (European Regional Development Fund), the fight against unemployment, particularly among young people and women (European Social Fund), cultural and educational programs, such as Erasmus and Socrates, and it can increases expenditure within a ceiling agreed with the Council and Commission. It uses its powers to increase the funds for humanitarian aid and refugee programs. When it comes to spending on agriculture, Parliament can propose modifications but it is the Council which has the final say" (De Rossa 2005).

It is hoped that increased cooperation facilitated by the EU lead to better, universal protections on the environment, and also greater European dialogue about security and defense matters. It also encourages travel and thus cultural dialogue. Today, EU citizens can travel without having their passports checked at the borders. "Millions of young people study in other countries with EU support" ("The history of the European Union, 2008, EUROPA). Ease of travel is further facilitated by the fact that thirteen of the member nations use the Euro. The advantage of the Euro for consumers is that they can not only shop in another EU country where goods are cheaper but compare prices within the Eurozone nations of Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia, and Spain. "As a result, manufacturers and retailers have taken steps to cut unjustifiably high prices. Travel for shopping, leisure or business from one euro country to another is cheaper because no money needs to be changed and no commission paid" ("Panorama of the European Union: What does the European Union do?" 2008, EUROPA). Also, there is a greater 'sharing' of individuals through the ability of EU nationals to work without restrictions in other EU nations, as well as to study in EU. The end of onerous government regulations supporting inefficient industries has been done away with as "competition introduced by the EU's frontier-free single market has driven quality up and prices down. Phone calls, internet access and air travel have all become cheaper. Households can increasingly choose the best bargain among a range of suppliers of electricity and gas ("Panorama of the European Union: What does the European Union do," 2008, EUROPA). Although the European Central Bank originally required member nations to adopt the currency of the euro, the United Kingdom, Denmark and Sweden refused, and still use their own currency, as does Switzerland and Liechtenstein. The pound and franc are thus still legal tender.

The greatest controversy today regards…